SAN FRANCISCO — Stanley Mosk, a self-described liberal whose 37-year tenure on the California Supreme Court made him the state’s longest-serving justice, died unexpectedly at his home here Tuesday. He was 88.
One of the nation’s most influential state judges, Mosk authored more than 1,500 opinions, many of them landmark decisions on civil rights, free speech, criminal justice and independent state constitutional grounds.
“This is a sad day for all Californians,” said Gov. Gray Davis in a statement. “We are all the beneficiaries of his extraordinary wisdom and foresight.”
Mosk, who clerks said was at work Monday, was the remaining liberal on the seven-member court. Davis’ aides said it was premature to discuss a replacement.
A lifelong Democrat who was appointed to the court in 1964 by Gov. Pat Brown, Mosk was a leading dissenter on conservative courts of recent years. But he confounded liberals by voting to uphold the state’s parental consent law for minors’ abortions – a majority opinion in 1996 that became a dissent a year later when the court’s membership shifted.
Mosk was a civil rights advocate who established the state attorney general’s civil rights division. As a Los Angeles Superior Court judge overturned a whites-only home deed restriction in 1947, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court voided such covenants nationwide.
Mosk often produced opinions separate from the court majority and was opposed to the death penalty. But he also showed flexibility, and a knack for anticipating political currents and riding them out.
The most striking example was his survival in the 1986 election that swept Rose Bird and two fellow liberals from the court, clearing the way for the first conservative majority in 30 years.
Potential opponents that year were lulled by Mosk’s hints of retirement and unwilling to target a judge with national stature, one who had worked closely with prosecutors as attorney general.
Also, his position on death penalty cases had changed noticeably: previously a consistent member of court majorities that overturned death sentences, Mosk voted to uphold 10 death sentences on a single day in December 1985.
That foreshadowed his 1987 ruling, on the new conservative court, overturning a major pro-defense decision in death cases that he had supported four years earlier. A similar episode happened in 1979, when Mosk changed his vote and upheld a mandatory-sentence law that was causing a political furor.
Stephen Barnett, a University of California at Berkeley law professor who closely follows the high court, said Mosk survived on the bench by knowing “when to trim his sails on a court that’s subject to political pressures.”
Mosk prevailed and remained to provide balance on a court with no other Democratic appointees, sharing his experience with newer justices and continuing a career that shaped California law for decades.
His 1978 ruling banned racial discrimination in jury selection, eight years before the U.S. Supreme Court took the same step nationwide. Courts in many other states have adopted his 1982 ruling, banning testimony by previously hypnotized witnesses, and an innovative 1980 decision allowing suits against an entire industry when marketing made it impossible to tell which brand of a product had caused injury.
Mosk’s 1972 ruling, possibly the most important environmental decision in the court’s history, extended to private developers a law requiring a study of each major project’s likely environmental impact and ways to avoid harm.
He has also been the court’s foremost advocate of interpreting individual rights in the state Constitution more broadly than federal rights. In response, prosecutors sponsored ballot measures in 1982 and 1990 that wiped out dozens of rulings in criminal cases, many by Mosk; but courts in other states have adopted the same doctrine to chart their own course.
But in the 1976 case of Allan Bakke, a white student who challenged a minority admissions program at the University of California at Davis Medical School, Mosk ruled all racial preferences unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and said race could be considered to promote student diversity, but 20 years later Mosk’s conclusion was adopted by California voters in Proposition 209.
Mosk, the target of picketing and student protests after his ruling, said after the passage of 209 that it had been ahead of its time.
He is survived by his wife Kaygey Kash Mosk and son Richard Mitch Mosk. Private services in Los Angeles are pending.